In March, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Rensselaer was one of six recipients of an award for new technologies in battery and energy storage, funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) Bench-to-Prototype solicitation in partnership with the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology (NY-BEST) Consortium.

The Rensselaer researchers, awarded $122,000, and originating from the Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES), will work with Finch Paper of Glens Falls and JNC America of Rye to develop high-energy density cathode materials for lithium-sulfur batteries. The funding is designed to transition innovative technologies with proven feasibility into a working prototype, moving them toward commercialization.

The genesis of the Rensselaer project was work that Trevor Simmons, research scientist in the Center for Future Energy Systems, did through New York state’s Pollution Prevention Institute (P2I), designed to reduce the energy consumption and emissions of the paper and pulp industry’s treatment and manufacturing processes. Working together with Finch Paper, Simmons was looking for alternative uses for lignosulfunates, or sulfonated lignin, the byproduct of bleaching wood pulp. This work resulted in activated carbons suitable for filtering and purification of industrial effluent.

Investing in New York’s cleantech economy will revolutionize the way we store and transfer energy, while creating jobs and supporting our state’s clean energy businesses.”—Governor Andrew Cuomo

Lignin, the carbon-rich material that strengthens and protects cellulose in wood, is the second most abundant polymer on Earth. Once removed in the pulping and bleaching processes, however, there are relatively few practical uses for lignosulfonates. Generally, pulp and paper manufacturers burn lignosulfonates, reintroducing the recovered sulfates into the manufacturing process, and releasing the remaining CO2 into the environment.

What Simmons realized, when considering lignosulfonates, was that their chemical composition of carbon and sulfur had tremendous energy storage potential. Once pyrolyzed, or burned in an inert atmosphere, the oxygen and hydrogen atoms are removed from the lignosulfonates, and what remains is a homogeneous carbon matrix that contains sulfur.

Simmons will be working with co-principal investigators Nikhil Koratkar, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, and Liping Huang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, on the two-year project. Together they will be collaborating with Finch Paper and JNC America. Robert Linhardt, the Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, and Jonathon Dordick, vice president of research and the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, together with Simmons, have been collaborating with JNC for several years on another research project.

In announcing the award, Governor Cuomo said, “Investing in New York’s cleantech economy will revolutionize the way we store and transfer energy, while creating jobs and supporting our state’s clean energy businesses.” The Rensselaer project exemplifies this goal by using a paper byproduct, which would otherwise become part of the industry’s low-value byproduct stream, to produce a cathode material that could result in lower-cost lithium batteries for energy storage in both stationary and mass transportation applications.